New Age Islam Special Correspondent
11 May 2019
It is widely believed that the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) was the main group behind the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. So far, this is the dominant perception among the security analysts and other researchers. This opinion was created after ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings, releasing a video in which the NTJ founder, Mohammed Zahran Hashim is seen alongside eight other people pledging allegiance to the Daesh. Later, authorities confirmed that Zahran planned the Easter attack on several churches and upmarket hotels with help from ISIS and was one of the suicide bombers in the Colombo carnage.
Even several members of the NTJ opine that the attacks were committed by the founder and former members of NTJ and that a further suicide bomb that killed 15 people was committed by Zahran’s brothers. However, they maintain that Zahran no longer represents National Thowheed Jamath as he was dismissed in 2017.
According to the Sri Lankan government, NTJ received international backing from more resourceful jihadist groups. The Cabinet spokesperson, Rajitha Senaratne, says: "we don't see that a small organisation in this country can do all that...We are investigating international support for them and their other links-how they produced the suicide bombers and bombs like this”.
Some close observers also assert that the NTJ has ties with ISI’s front organisation, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which, through its Sri Lanka operations, has sought links with the TNTJ in India. NTJ leader Zaharan Hashim is inspired by fugitive Indian preacher Zakir Naik’s sermons and has received funds from Indian jihadists. It would be paradoxical if India, which tipped off Sri Lanka about the bombing plot, became a victim itself of the radicalizing elements of the Thowheed Jamaat. In order to understand the Colombo carnage’s implications in India, one has to trace the ideological affiliations of this radical Islamist group. In fact, this ISIS-linked outfit is deeply rooted in the ultra-orthodox Salafist roots in the South East Asia.
Significantly, the NTJ has ideological linkages with the Indian Salafist organization headquartered in Chennai—Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ). Both NTJ and TNTJ are based on an ‘anti-Shirk’ religious ideology which seeks to promote an ultra-puritanical concept of ‘Tawheed’ (Islamic monotheism) in the region. Thus, the NTJ and TNTJ are ideological offshoots of the global Salafism which is on the rise due to the free inflow of Saudi funds which have expanded the Salafist foothold in the island. The sudden emergence of huge Salafist mosques and other Islamic structures in the region is difficult to escape one's attention. The Sri Lankan Police has found that the NTJ possesses over Rs 140 million in cash and other assets worth more than Rs 7 billion. The assets and cash were found during the recent probe by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
Salafism in Sri Lanka
The emergence of the hardcore Salafist strains in Sri Lanka were seen in stray incidents of quarrels, clashes between Buddhists and Muslims and deliberate changeovers to Islamic dress codes by Muslim women. Thus, the Salafi Islam, overriding the traditional beliefs of Sri Lankan Muslim, emerged in Kattankudy in the 1980s.
Initially, the Salafist adherents in Sri Lanka created sectarian clashes with the local Sufi followers considering them ‘apostates’. But they showed their true colours when they vandalised the Sufi structures belonging to the Tareeqa-tul-Mufliheen and burned down the houses of over hundred Sufi followers in December 2006. But perhaps because of its preoccupation with the threat from the separatist Tamil Tigers, who had officially pulled out of peace talks indefinitely, the then government did not take the rise of Salafism in Sri Lanka as a serious security issue. Since the NTJ is an ideological offshoot of the global Salafism, it is important to understand its religious affiliations, ideological linkages and activities.
The Rise of NTJ in Sri Lanka
National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), also known as Jama‘at al-Tawḥeed al-Wataniyah (National Monotheism Organisation) was founded in 2012 by Mohammed Zahran Hashim. It is believed to be linked with the ISIS and has now got banned on 27 April 2019 because of being implicated in the Easter Sunday bombings. Notably, the NTJ broke away from another radical Islamist group, the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ) in 2016.
Until the Sri Lankan bombings, NTJ was little known merely as one of many Islamic groups in the Buddhist-majority nation. According to a senior Sri Lanka analyst Alan Keenan, very little was known about National Thowheeth Jama’ath, prior to the bombings. Keenan does not rule out the possibility of the group breaking away from the political organization “Sri Lanka Thowheeth Jama’ath,” which also carries hardline views and anti-pluralism sentiments.
Like the NTJ, many organizations in Sri Lanka use the name “Thowheeth Jama’ath” roughly translated as a “group standing for the Islamic monotheism”. The ultra-puritanical Takfiri Salafists often misconstrue the Islamic doctrine of monotheism—“Towheed” also written as “Tawhid”—to declare other interpretations of Islam as akin to Shirk. Thus it is not difficult to identify the NTJ’s strict adherence to this hardline strain of Salafism which follows a highly textual and literalist interpretations of Islamic theology.
NTJ has reportedly been involved in fuelling skirmishes between different faith groups and acts of vandalism against Buddhist statues. It also attacked the Sufi followers in Kattankudy considering them Kafirs. In 2017, NTJ led a mob wielding swords to attack Sufis and their shrines. But it was not viewed a serious security threat to the country until then. Despite complaints by Muslim organizations the Sri Lankan government failed to take proper action against the NTJ. But the NTJ, in its clerical sermons and social media propaganda, regularly highlighted violence against Muslims in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and other countries. Zahran Hashim preached on a pro-ISIL Facebook account, known as "Al-Ghuraba" media, and on YouTube.
According to the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, the NTJ "aims to spread the global jihadist movement to Sri Lanka and to create hatred, fear and divisions in society." The organisation is against all faiths and creeds other than the Salafism. It believes that the world was created only for the ‘true’ Muslims. They declare Sufis as Kafirs and deserving to be killed. NTJ has carried out several attacks against Sufi places of worship and is also linked with the vandalization of Buddhist statues in Sri Lanka. Several Sri Lankan Muslim organisations including All Ceylon Jamayyathul Ulama (ACJU) have opposed the NTJ's leadership for encouraging extremely fundamentalist indoctrination of children and for clashes with Buddhist monks.
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